“Bury me in the soft desert sand; for I’ll be there ever more…” – Walt Bickel
Running through the heart of southern California’s El Paso Mountain range – an area rich in mining history - the Bonanza trail takes the off-road explorer on a journey through time; to an era when men braved the searing heat (and sometimes each other) in order to pursue their dreams of wealth. The Bureau of Land Management, which administers the area, has placed signs and markers at many of the prominent sites. Plus, the trail affords views of stunning scenery from vantage points that are accessible by stock SUV’s (four wheel drive with low-range is a must, though).
We begin our adventure by heading north on Route 395 past Kramer Junction. Roughly 33 miles north of Kramer Junction, we turn left onto Garlock Road, a two-lane paved road which is, itself named for a ghost town. But that is another story. The trail can also be accessed via the 14 freeway, which is easier for those coming directly from the Los Angeles area. Since the author lives in the San Bernardino area, we are coming in through the back way.
Another 3.8 miles brings us to the turn off for Goler Gulch, which begins as a graded dirt road. The road is hard to spot from the highway, but there are a couple of signs that are slightly set back from the highway. One of them says “Goler Heights”. Stay on the dirt road and avoid the private community that appears on the driver’s left side. A short distance past the trailer park, the road descends into Goler Gulch. At this point, we’re about a mile off the highway and the trail becomes very sandy. Four wheel drive should be engaged. The surrounding hills are full of remnants of the mining activity that once took place here. Old mine entrances and rotted wood – presumably from old head frames are scattered throughout Goler Gulch. However, the main attractions here are the two cabins, both of which are easily accessible. One of them is in rather dilapidated condition, and sits next to an old corral and a rusted windmill. One look at this place, and we can tell that no one has kept livestock here for quite a long time. The other cabin is newer, and is in pretty good shape. Known as “The Edith E.”, this cabin was built during the 1930’s by some miners who were working the “Edith E.” mine. Still in decent shape after all these years, the Edith E. cabin is maintained by a volunteer group calling itself “The Friends of the Edith E. Cabin”. Visitors can sleep in the cabin for up to two nights, per BLM regulations, free of charge.
The story of Goler Gulch is a mixture of verifiable history and some intriguing local lore.
The year was 1867. Blacksmith/wagon maker John Goler was en route to Los Angeles from Death Valley. Stopping for a drink in the El Paso Mountains, Goler noticed some gold nuggets lying on the ground near the spring he was drinking from. Although he figured that there was probably more gold in the area, Goler feared the local Indians and didn’t want to hang around. Intending to come back another time, Goler supposedly stuck his rifle in the ground so that he could find the spot again. Why a man who was afraid of hostile Indians would choose to abandon his rifle is anyone’s guess.
At any rate, Goler made it back to Los Angeles, where he met up with another prospector - Grant Cuddeback. The two made several return trips to the El Paso’s in search of the spring, but were never able to find it. Nor were they able to find Goler’s rifle. The pair eventually found gold elsewhere in the Mojave Desert, but Goler never gave up on finding his “lost” gold. He set off once again - alone this time – and faded into the mists of history.
Ironically, gold was eventually found in the area by others, and by 1893 several hundred people were living in and around Goler Gulch. The little town sported several saloons and a school! Unfortunately, Goler Gulch’s heyday was short-lived, and today, little remains of the town.
If we continue about a half a mile past the Edith E. cabin, we actually come to the old Goler town site. The area is still pretty sandy, and there are some large rocks partially hidden in the sand. Still, our stock Jeep Cherokee 4x4 will get us through, as long as we’re careful.
On our left we see some old concrete foundations and mounds of gravel. These are all that remain of Goler. A small sign marks the school site. Maybe a tenth of a mile further is a turn off, on our left, leading into the hills. To proceed straight would take us into the Goler Narrows – a route best left to those who are not overly concerned with damaging their vehicles. At this point, we are approximately 1.6 miles from where we turned in from Garlock Road, and all mileage notations will be made in terms of how far we’ve traveled since turning off the highway.
Making our turn, we begin our journey into the interior of the El Paso’s. Soon, we begin to climb a moderate grade; the author generally prefers to keep his Cherokee in “4 LO” when climbing most hills for long periods in order to avoid straining the drive train The extra traction and better vehicle control doesn’t hurt, either.
As we climb, we may wonder how we are going to keep from making a wrong turn and winding up at a dead end and having to back track. At 2.1miles, we notice a turnoff to the right, which would appear to take us even further into the back country we yearn to explore. However, a battered sign on our right warns that “this is not a thru (sic) road”. We continue roughly 20 feet to a rusted drum which is sitting on our left. The drum is adjacent to a turn-off on our right. As we make the turn, we are still climbing. At 2.5 miles we can look down and see the “retirement community” that we passed on the way into Goler Gulch. The terrain becomes pretty rocky here – so we proceed slowly.
At 3.6 miles, we pull off the trail and get out of our Jeep. To our right, we can see the Chocolate Mountain range, some sixty miles distant. The panorama is quite breathtaking.
Another two tenths of a mile (we’re now at 3.8 miles total) finds us dropping down into the heart of the El Paso’s. As we descend, we can see trails branching off in all directions. We are tempted to take off across the vast flat plain, to the mountains that wait about four miles distant. But, we’ll save that for another day. Staying the course, we come to a marker indicating that we have arrived at trail EP-11. If we turn left here, we will be treated to a very scenic trip back to Garlock Road. We decide to keep moving further into the El Paso’s, so we turn left.
EP-11 is deceptively level and smooth. We are tempted to shift back into 2WD and crank our speed up. Caution is the watchword, though. Experience has taught us that ruts and rough patches can come up suddenly. And one does, at 5.2 miles. This is more of a small ditch than a large rut, and it runs right across the trail. There is another trail marker at this spot, this one indicating trail EP-11/15. In order to make our left turn onto EP-11/15, we must cross this ditch very carefully. Now, we are entering one of the Mojave Desert’s most fascinating back country trails. In order to stay on the Bonanza Trail, we bear right at another EP-15 marker (6.1 miles). Before proceeding, we stop once again to gaze at the scene before us. Ahead, the trail goes through a pass, with steep hills on either side. It gives us the impression that anyone proceeding further will be swallowed up, leaving civilization behind for good. This is just an illusion, though, as almost all of the trails in the El Paso’s lead to a highway.
Rolling along, we make sure we stay on EP-15; as we come to 6.6 miles, we notice that the earth becomes reddish in color. We begin to notice the tall green vegetation that passes slowly by the windows of our Cherokee. Surely, this means that there is water nearby. Here is where we have to descend a steep, rocky downgrade.
Low – range is an absolute necessity here; with our Cherokee’s stock “crawl ratio” we still have to tap our brakes periodically in order to keep our speed in check. Once we reach the bottom, we appear to no longer be following a trail, but driving along a stream bed. In truth, the trail is a stream bed at times, usually during the winter months. At those times, water courses over the rocks that make up the trail here. No doubt, this is a result of melting snow at higher elevations.
Although the terrain here is level, we must proceed very slowly over the rocks. We go only short distance further before encountering another stream that trickles across the trail during the wet season. This spot is a favorite of modern-day prospectors, who try their luck panning for gold here.
We move past the stream and climb a steep, but short hill. We climb this hill carefully, as it is composed of loose dirt and rocks. At the top, we turn left immediately.
The trail passes high above valleys and dry washes on our right side. Many of these places conceal the ruins of mining operations. Where men once toiled and machines chugged, there is now silence.
The 7.3 mile mark brings us adjacent to mysterious Black Mountain, on our right side. Even seen from a few miles away, Black Mountain seems to loom over us. Black Mountain is actually hard to miss, since it is the dominant formation in the area. Composed largely of volcanic rock, Black Mountain was supposed to have been sacred to the Indians. Legend has it that various tribes would meet at Black Mountain’s summit for peace ceremonies and other rituals. During the area’s mining heyday, there were whispers of strange lights that could be seen emanating from the top of Black Mountain. Legends aside, there is ample evidence of Native American presence on Black Mountain, in the form of rock drawings and stone circles.
Black Mountain is accessible only on foot, and reaching the top involves a hike of roughly six miles round trip – depending upon where one parks. Since the mountain sits in the middle of a designated Wilderness area, vehicles are not permitted.
As if drawn to Black Mountain, we continue along EP-15 getting closer to the mountain by the minute. At 8.5 miles, markers denoting the Black Mountain Wilderness area are to the right of the trail. To the left are the remains of Colorado Camp.
Gold, copper, and other minerals have been found in the reddish hills near Colorado camp. The site has been “owned” by various parties since the late 1800’s. However, the most notorious person to be connected with Colorado Camp was probably C.E. French, who obtained the rights to the claim sometime during the late 1940’s or early 1950’s. Portrayed by some writers as a con artist, French is alleged to have convinced newcomers to work his mine below ground – with little to show for their efforts. Meanwhile French worked above ground keeping the larger nuggets for himself!
French’s reputation aside; no one seems to have made a fortune here. Ruins in the form of an old chimney and a crumbling foundation are all remain of Colorado Camp.
As we leave Colorado Camp behind, two different landscapes present themselves to us. On our left are towering rocky hills. Their velvety surfaces are blemished by the occasional mine shaft and dirt trail. To our right is a large flat plateau. Although the plateau looks soft and grassy, there are many large rocks hidden in the tall grass.
12.2 miles finds us looking at a sign pointing us up hill to “Burro” Schmidt’s Tunnel. The tunnel was carved out of 2000 feet of solid rock by William “Burro” Schmidt. But this too, is an excursion better left for another day. We proceed down the hill; the trail is pretty smooth, but sandy at times. So, we keep our Cherokee in 4WD, but shift in to high range as we descend into an area known as Last Chance Canyon.
The life of a desert prospector is a tough one. Blistering summer heat, cold winters, scarcity of water, and the task of earning a living here all take their toll. Yet, at least one man actually flourished here. Walter Bickel, who first started poking around the El Paso’s during the 1930’s, built a cabin in Last Chance Canyon in 1934. A machinist by trade, Bickel owned a Los Angeles shop that succumbed to the Depression. He then worked a series of odd jobs, while spending his weekends in Last Chance Canyon. 1942 found Bickel in the U.S. Army, where he earned a medal for designing a tool that enabled soldiers to rapidly change hot machine gun barrels during combat. Discharged in 1946, Bickel moved back into his cabin, and lived there full-time for the next 40 years. Working his mine until dark, eating meals which incorporated herbs that he grew himself, maintaining his machinery, studying the desert sky through his telescope, and regaling visitors with tales of desert lore, old Walt had quite a life.
Bickel finally had to leave his camp, after suffering a stroke in 1987. Some say that the BLM’s attempt at the time to evict “squatters” from public lands may have contributed to his ill health. Although no longer able to stay at the site full time, Bickel lived to see his camp saved from demolition. Friends and other interested parties met with BLM officials, who agreed to leave the site intact and allow a “caretaker” to live there. When Bickel died in 1996, his son in law, Larry O’Neill, moved on site and lived there until he too, was forced to move away due to poor health.
Bickel Camp is now preserved under the auspices of the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest. The current caretaker is happy to show visitors around. Bickel’s cabin and much of his equipment is still here. A visit to Bickel Camp gives us a glimpse of a life that few dare to live.
Remaining on the Bonanza Trail as we leave Bickel Camp requires us to bear right and hug the hills. As we curve to the North, we enter Upper Bonanza Gulch, an area extremely rich in mining history. Several cabins still remain in the area; a couple of them have been adopted by off-road groups and are habitable for overnight stays. The cabins themselves were built throughout the twentieth century. One, known as “Sears Cabin” is built entirely of packing crates, obtained from a Los Angeles Sears retail store in 1959. Inside, evidence of recent visitors abounds, in the form of worn out furniture, canned goods, and old magazines neatly stacked next to a chair. The place could almost be called “cozy”.
Leaving Sears cabin, we drive along the sandy wash that is EP15 here. Evidence of digging going back to the 1800’s is still visible in form of the stone dugouts and tailings that pepper the hills around Bonanza Gulch.
According to one local historian, the dugouts were originally occupied by white miners, who left the sites after all the gold was wrung out of the mines. Or so they thought. The dug outs were subsequently occupied by Chinese miners, who, allegedly due to their smaller stature, were able dig smaller tunnels and extract gold using unique short-handled shovels. Of course, word spread that the Chinese were finding gold in the areas that were supposedly played out, and in areas not easily accessible by the white men. There were whispered rumors that the tunnels being worked by the Chinese were sealed with the help of explosives – while the Chinese were still inside them. No one could satisfactorily explain the virtual disappearance of the Chinese from Bonanza Gulch. That is, until fairly recently. Supposedly, modern prospectors excavating some of the tunnels discovered human bones….and short-handled shovels.
15.9 miles finds us arriving at what used to be the Bonanza Gulch post office. Built during the 1930’s, the little building still stands as a mute vestige of the area’s last mining hey day.
Sadly, our trip down the dusty old Bonanza Trail is almost over. An eerie silence descends upon Bonanza Gulch as we take a last look around.
We meander along EP-15, climbing a rocky hill as we leave Bonanza Gulch and its ghosts behind. At this point, it is roughly six miles (21.9 total) to the 14 Freeway if we choose to stay on EP-15. It is tempting to take some side trips on our way out. There are other sites that we have yet to explore. But, the lives we left back in “civilization” call to us.
We opt for the freeway, already looking forward to our next trip through time.
*Author’s note: The cabins in the El Paso Mountains are preserved by volunteers under the Bureau of Land Management’s “Adopt A Cabin” program. Although some of them are habitable for short stays, none have running water or other amenities. The cleanliness of each cabin varies. Some are down right dingy. One should be careful not to kick up the dust from rodent droppings; inhalation of the dust can expose one to diseases, such as the Hantavirus, which can be fatal. Some cabins may not be structurally sound – always watch for rotted floorboards and protruding nails.
Also, NEVER enter old mine shafts. They are extremely dangerous.
Be sure to bring plenty of drinking water and food – it is better to have too much than too little.
Also, it is a good idea to have a map of the area. The shop at Jawbone Station has several inexpensive trail maps. The shop can be reached at 760 373-1146, and maps can be ordered in advance of your trip.
Finally, almost any point in the El Paso’s is at least 30 miles from the nearest services. Make sure your vehicle is in good shape – before you leave home. It is best to travel with at least one other vehicle. It is also a good idea to have two-way radio equipment – such as ham radio gear (and the license to use it) installed in your vehicle. Cellular telephone coverage is spotty in the El Paso’s.
Always check the weather before you head up to the El Paso’s – the danger from flash-floods is a real one.
Author's note: I visit the El Paso Mountains regularly- some of the trails, and conditions in the area change from time to time. In addition, some trails may have been closed since this article was written. I strongly suggest obtaining current maps of the area before venturing into the El Paso's.
Photographs from some of my El Paso range trips can be found on my blog- http://elpasomountains.blogspot.com/ Viewers will have to scroll through my blog to see the photos, as I post them sporadically.